New York Times Story on Democratic Electoral Woes
February 8, 2006
Some Democrats Are Sensing Missed Opportunities
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
and SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 — Democrats are heading into this year’s elections in a position weaker than they had hoped for, party leaders say, stirring concern that they are letting pass an opportunity to exploit what they see as widespread Republican vulnerabilities.
In interviews, senior Democrats said they were optimistic about significant gains in Congressional elections this fall, calling this the best political environment they have faced since President Bush took office.
But Democrats described a growing sense that they had failed to take full advantage of the troubles that have plagued Mr. Bush and his party since the middle of last year, driving down the president’s approval ratings, opening divisions among Republicans in Congress over policy and potentially putting control of the House and Senate into play in November.
Asked to describe the health of the Democratic Party, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said: “A lot worse than it should be. This has not been a very good two months.”
“We seem to be losing our voice when it comes to the basic things people worry about,” Mr. Dodd said.
Democrats said they had not yet figured out how to counter the White House’s long assault on their national security credentials. And they said their opportunities to break through to voters with a coherent message on domestic and foreign policy — should they settle on one — were restricted by the lack of an established, nationally known leader to carry their message this fall.
As a result, some Democrats said, their party could lose its chance to do to Republicans this year what the Republicans did to them in 1994: make the midterm election, normally dominated by regional and local concerns, a national referendum on the party in power.
“I think that two-thirds of the American people think the country is going in the wrong direction,” said Senator Barack Obama, the first-term Illinois Democrat who is widely viewed as one of the party’s promising stars. “They’re not sure yet whether Democrats can move it in the right direction.”
Mr. Obama said the Democratic Party had not seized the moment, adding: “We have been in a reactive posture for too long. I think we have been very good at saying no, but not good enough at saying yes.”
Some Democrats said they favored remaining largely on the sidelines while Republicans struggled under the glare of a corruption inquiry. And some said there was still time for the party to get its act together. But many others said the party needed to move quickly to offer a comprehensive governing agenda, even as they expressed concern about who could make the case.
Their concern was aggravated by the image of high-profile Democrats, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, challenging the legality of Mr. Bush’s secret surveillance program this week at a time when the White House has sought to portray Democrats as weak on security.
“We’re selling our party short; you’ve got to stand for a lot more than just blasting the other side,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee. “The country is wide open to hear some alternatives, but I don’t think it’s wide open to all these criticisms. I am sitting here and getting all my e-mail about the things we are supposed to say about the president’s speech, but it’s extremely light on ideas. It’s like, ‘We’re for jobs and we’re for America.’ ”
To a certain extent, the frustrations afflicting Democrats are typical for a party out of power. In Congress, the Democrats have become largely marginalized by the Republican majority, depriving them of a ready platform either to make attacks or offer their own ideas. Presidential campaigns typically produce prominent party leaders, followed around the country by a cluster of reporters and television crews, but that is at least two years away.
Yet in many ways, the Democratic Party’s problems seem particularly tangled today, a source of frustration to Democratic leaders as they have watched opinion polls indicating that the public is souring on the Republican Party and receptive to Democratic leadership.
And the problems are besetting Democrats at a pivotal moment, as they struggle to adapt to a shifting American political landscape, and a concerted effort by this White House to make permanent inroads among once traditional Democratic voters.
Since Mr. Bush’s re-election, Democrats have been divided over whether to take on the Republicans in a more confrontational manner, ideologically and politically, or to move more forcefully to stake out the center on social and national security issues. They are being pushed, from the left wing of the party, to stand for what they say are the party’s historical liberal values.
But among more establishment Democrats, there is concern that many of the party’s most visible leaders — among them, Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman; Senator John Kerry, the party’s 2004 presidential candidate; Mr. Kennedy; Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader; and Al Gore, who has assumed a higher profile as the party heads toward the 2008 presidential primaries — may be flawed messengers.
In this view, the most visible Democrats are vulnerable to Republican attacks portraying them as out of the mainstream on issues including security and budget-cutting.
One of the party’s most prominent members, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, has been relatively absent for much of this debate, a characteristic display of public caution that her aides say reflects her concern for keeping focused on her re-election bid. Mrs. Clinton, who has only nominal opposition, declined requests for an interview to discuss her views of the party.
Mr. Kerry said the party’s authority had been diluted because of the absence of one or two obvious leaders, though he expressed confidence that would change.
“We are fighting to find a voice under difficult circumstances, and I’m confident, over the next few months, you are going to see that happen,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview. “Our megaphone is just not as large as their megaphone, and we have a harder time getting that message out, even when people are on the same page.”
Beyond that, while there is a surfeit of issues for Democrats to use against Republicans — including corruption, the war in Iraq, energy prices and health care — party leaders are divided about what Democrats should be talking about and about how soon they should engage in the debate.
In a speech last week in Washington and in an interview, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, who is considering a run for president in 2008, sharply criticized fellow Democrats who were arguing that the party should focus only on domestic issues and turn away from national security, since that has been the strong suit for this White House since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“I think the Republicans are ripe for the taking on this issue,” Mr. Bayh said in the interview, “but not until we rehabilitate our own image. I think there’s a certain element of denial about how we are viewed, perhaps incorrectly but viewed nonetheless, by many Americans as being deficient on national security.”
In his speech, to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Bayh said: “As Democrats, we have a patriotic duty and political imperative to lay out our ideas for protecting America. Frankly, our fellow citizens have doubts about us. We have work to do.”
Some Democrats argued that the party had time to put up its ideas, and that it would be smarter to wait until later, when voters would be paying attention.
“When you bring it out early, you are going to leave it open for the spinmeisters in Rove’s machine, the Republican side, to tear it to pieces,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.
But former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s 2004 vice-presidential nominee and a prospective presidential candidate for 2008, said he thought Americans were eager to hear the contrasting case.
“What the American people are hungry to hear from us is, ‘what is the difference?’ ” Mr. Edwards said in an interview. “What will we do? How will we deal with the corruption issue in Washington? How will we deal with the huge moral issues that we have at home? This is a huge opportunity for our party to show what we are made of.”
Historically at least, Democrats should be in a strong position. The out-of-power party typically gains seats in the midterm elections of a president’s second term. And Democrats said they had a particularly compelling case for voting out the party in power this year because of investigations centered on the White House and Congress, including the influence-peddling case involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“We’re going to keep hammering this,” said Mr. Dean, the party chairman, referring to the scandals. “One thing the Republicans have taught us is that values and character matter.”
Yet some Democrats warned that it would be a mistake to talk only about ethics.
“It’s absolutely required that the party talk about things in addition to the Abramoff scandal,” said Martin Frost, former leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I think the climate is absolutely right to take back the House or the Senate or both. But you can’t do it without a program.”
And Mr. Bayh said, “I don’t believe we will win by just not being them.”
Ms. Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, did not dispute that argument. But, pointing to the Democratic strategy in defeating Mr. Bush’s Social Security proposal last year, she said there was no rush.
“People said, ‘You can’t beat something with nothing,’ ” she said, arguing that the Democrats had in fact accomplished precisely that this year. “I feel very confident about where we are.”
And Senator Barbara Boxer, also a California Democrat, said: “We have a strategy. First is to convince the American people that what’s happening in Washington is not working. We have achieved that. Now we have to, at this stage, convince people that we are the ones to bring positive change.”
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